Communicating with Students in a Noisy World
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Four weeks into their innovative and inventive Massive Open Online Course (MOOC), online learning specialist Dr. Curtis Bonk sits down again with The EvoLLLution, flanked by five of his teaching assistants to give us a mid-point update. Missteps and ideas for the future are discussed as Bonk, Yue Ma, Justin Whiting, Donggil Song, Kim Seeber and Abdullah Altuwaijri reflect back on their MOOC experience so far.
What is the breakdown between traditional-age and adult students in the MOOC?
CB: My guess is that we’re going to have a lot of people who have 20-30 years of teaching experience, they’re petrified about teaching and they’re looking at this as a way to get some skills. We have some other people who are newbies and young and, again, are in a teaching and learning center and looking for ideas for training other people.
JW: I haven’t really seen anyone younger than college age, I don’t know if there’s even any high-school age students doing this. Probably almost all adults.
Does that information actually come through to you guys? Do you have an idea or a spreadsheet of who the students are in the course? Or do you have go to in yourself to figure out who is taking the MOOC?
JW: As far as age; no, we don’t have that.
YM: [Students] put their information online, they introduce themselves and their experiences, and that’s how we figure out what their experiences are.
CB: Blackboard/Coursesite has realized they need a profile tool now as a result of this. This is their first attempt at a MOOC so there’s a lot of tools and features that they see they need. One is to understand the audience better. …
What changes, if any, have you had to make to the course as it’s been running?
CB: There’s been a couple of things that we’ve added included trying to get themes captured. Kim’s done sort of a Google doc to capture some themes. …
KS: I have been working on going through the discussion boards and the blogs—as well as the other TAs—to come up with common themes and we’ve been giving participants the summaries and they’ve appreciated that. …
CB: We’ve changed how people introduce themselves because initially everyone were responding to everyone else and people were getting inundated with a lot of emails. So we’ve changed how that’s handled, …they activated the rating system so you could rate comments of other people. … I’m also giving away some of my books for highest rated ideas, comments so that’s been a minor tweak.
There’s been a lot of little tweaks, turning on and off features, adding the themes, adding more potentials for badges, they’ve also tried to feature video because there’s some issue about being too much text to read every week so we’ve brought in more video to watch. … We’ve also tried to turn on and off the blogging features so one week we had blogs and one week we didn’t just to see how effective they were.
Most of the changes sound like they’re along the lines of trying to gear up engagement and trying to get folks involved more with what’s happening in the course and getting them to respond to it.
KS: I think that participants have been able to give us a lot of feedback and we’ve been able to make a lot of changes along the way so they’re kind of creating their own experience. We try to remind them that this is their experience and that they need to help make the best of it. …
JW: The first week there was a whole lot of individual blog posts and individual discussion posts. One of the things in week 3 that I liked in the discussion board is people suggested specific discussion threads early on the week then they used some of those ones to focus… so it wasn’t just hundreds of discussion threads, it was more concise with a few threads a lot of people responded to. …
There was some discussion early on about whether or not people wanted to be put into smaller groups or whether they wanted to stay in the big massive open, and there were certainly pluses and minuses to both options.
CB: You can imagine you have 3000-odd sign up initially… and structuring that for engagement in an activity is not an easy task. As you go through the week when you see a few hundred people as very highly active it becomes easier in terms of matchmaking. Other people lurk in and watch from the outside and participate when they want to. But then you have new people adding into the mix, so part of the question here is how do the people who’ve been in for a few weeks interact with the people coming in, and what resources do you make available to the new people?
What they’ve done is they’ve taken the synchronous sessions and put them up in YouTube as well as having an Illuminate link so they can catch up by watching and participating in previous weeks as well as jumping into the news ones. So this is kind of an evolving, iterative process—an evolving creature, if you will—this MOOC. …
KS: I’ve noticed that [students] really want to get together and meet people that are in their situation as well as learn from other people. There are definitely some people that are very helpful and offering advice and telling them about some of the other participants.
CB: What we could do is create some kind of badge system for the high-end mentors and friends and colleagues within the system, or some kind of recognition, or even some kind of symbol up there so that one realizes that there’s a point of contact here. … A lot of people just want to have their expertise used and we’re seeing a lot of that, sharing innovative best practices, sharing one-off ideas. …
You were talking about portioning the group into smaller sub-units… Do you think that this would happen along lines of employment or lines of ‘when you joined the course’? Was that well received or do students want to stay within the larger, overall group?
JW: It’s a mix. There were some that seemed to be in favor of having smaller groups but then there were others making comments like, “this is the whole reason I wanted to do this massive course was because I wanted to see what it was like with the whole group” and you do miss out if it’s siloed.
KS: I noticed as well that they have mixed feelings. Some of them do want to meet others who are in similar situations but they also don’t want to miss out on what others are saying. I think maybe they were expecting to be in groups but I think overall they enjoy interacting with the whole group.
YM: Yesterday I found there’s a Professional Design in Higher Education [blog] where people are sharing their experiences and it’s kind of like small groups. People interact with eachother more often than their own individual blog, so some people like small groups.
Looking forward to the next MOOC, what do you think you would do differently from day one?
KS: It seems like a lot of participants were expecting more social media tools. I don’t know what the constraints are of Blackboard but I think I would probably add a lot more interactive features – I think [students] were expecting that.
JS: I think they did a pretty good job of setting what the expectations were going to be but a lot of people still didn’t really know what to expect as far as what the actual videos—you know when we do the video conferences with Dr. Bonk, what those are going to look like—because they try to compress a lot of information into a short time.
Then, just some of the other logistical things; how it’s all set up. Where are the blogs? Where are the discussion posts? That first part is really important to make sure that people know what the different things are, how to use the tools.
I think Blackboard did a fairly nice job in setting it up, but that’s always a big challenge in an online course is making sure people know how to do stuff in that first week.
CB: I would change timing in a number of different ways. …It was [started] right when university semesters have ended and before K-12s have ended so it made it difficult for us on our end as some of us were going through commencement ceremonies and grading and other things. …The first week in an online class is the critical week, but in a MOOC it’s really the critical week, it’s THE week and if you don’t address people’s needs in Week 1 they’re gone. …Having the week 1 be basically the final week of our semester was probably not a wise decision, it would have been much better off to have it in July and August. If you’re going to overlap the school year, don’t overlap the last week of a semester, it’s not a good idea.
Also, we put this together pretty fast, so a lot of us came on board and these people showed up within weeks, so maybe more pre-planning would be helpful. At the same time, there’s some freshness and spontaneity that comes with not planning too much. …
There’s pros and cons of time, there’s pros and cons of all these things we’ve come up with. Social media, as Kim said, that’s one thing. The other thing people are looking at is that a lot of MOOCs in the past are theoretical MOOCs… and people’s expectations are that this would be run like that when in fact it’s a professional development MOOC. It’s much more practical than theoretical and it’s a different mindset.
So some people who are MOOCers, who look at a MOOC as a religious experience and have participated in the theory and talk about the philosophies of life—this is not a philosophy of life course and they might have walked away disappointed with that notion… Those who came in looking for professional development have been very pleased for the most part and we hopefully get to keep that momentum going.
Blackboard realizes… the need for more social media and finding out how to get people to interact. …
Looking forward to the next few weeks, how do you foresee people sticking with it?
JS: Blackboard… they’re going to keep this open so even people down the road, a month down the road, they can sign up and take the whole thing and take the course even though they weren’t here for any of the live part but they can go back and watch the videos. …
People will continue to be able to be involved and sign up, and that’s going to create a challenge for Blackboard. You have to continue to have people managing it and running it, monitoring when [students] first sign up, making sure they’re doing blog posts. Who’s going to then be responding to them if nobody else is joining at the time? …
KS: Another incentive is that they are providing resources to one another and they are able to share what they’ve created. …I’ve also noticed in the introduction discussion board that they’ve gone through and read other people’s discussions and they connect with them in that way so I think they’ll continue to connect with eachother after the MOOC. …
CB: We’re coming near the end actually, we’re at week four of five and we’re getting close to people being able to accumulate whatever they need to accumulate to be able to say they’re done this class. Will we have a celebratory toast at the end? I don’t know! … We could have a second set of four-five weeks just with…guest speakers from around the world. Some people are utilizing the frameworks and models that we’ve put into this and we could have a best practices website that could be created based on what they’ve done. A number of people have been sending both Kim and myself examples and we could have a catalogue of these best practices that have been done.
Learn how you can improve your relationship management to attract and retain non-traditional students
Author Perspective: Educator